Authors: Annie Murray
It would be remembered as one of the worst nights of the Blitz on Birmingham. The city was already heavily scarred from more than two months of regular bombardments. Houses and factories had been smashed open, unexploded bombs, incendiaries and shrapnel littered the city and the Market Hall, a favourite shopping haunt in town, was now a smashed shell.
Exhausted city dwellers spent cold, terrifying nights in shelters and cellars or crowded into the cupboard under the stairs, wondering who would be next as the planes droned overhead. Explosions shook the houses, blasting the glass from windows, knocking plaster from ceilings. A few people, too worn out even to wake to the sirens, slept through the raids: others defied the dangers and also stayed in their beds.
The Luftwaffe were back tonight, in strength. By seven thirty they were dropping flares and incendiaries, igniting a path lit by tongues of flame for the bombers. And when the bombs did begin to fall it was one of the longest, most intense raids the city had yet seen. House after house was hit, major firms suffered serious damage, wave after wave of planes came over until it seemed the whole city was ablaze: too many fires for the Fire Brigades as they fought to save factories and warehouses.
In a residential street not two miles from the heart of the city, a bomb fell on a solid Victorian villa, just one in a row of such houses. It was a direct hit, plummeting through the roof, its explosion causing the floors of the house to collapse, the whole building caving in on itself. For a long time the smashing of glass, the crashing, groaning fall of timbers went on, the rattle of plaster, trickle of dust, clouds of it, thick and choking, billowing through the chill air before silently settling.
The wardens were not there. Not yet. No one was in the street to hear the faint, anguished voice of a dying woman calling out from the rubble.
‘Oh God help me! . . . Where are you my poor darling? . . .
Mein Liebling! . . . Mein Herzensliebling . . .
And then these last, desperate cries faded away, unheard by anyone but a petrified cat, hiding squeezed behind a shed in the garden next door.
‘There she goes!’
‘Time’s up, girls!’
The siren, known as the ‘bull’, blared out across the imposing brick buildings of the Cadbury Works, through the surrounding trees and wide swathes of lawn, signalling to the neighbourhood that the afternoon shift was over. The workers moved in chattering streams through the various factory blocks, down to the cloakrooms to retrieve their belongings.
Edie Marshall peeled off her cap and white overall. At last it was time to go home. There’d been an aching lump in her throat on and off all afternoon as she worked on the line in the wrapping department. Beside her moved an endless purple and gold river of wrapped chocolate bars to be counted and packed, but her eyes kept misting over, blurring her vision so she could scarcely see to count the six, then another six bars into a box. For Pete’s sakes pull yourself together! she kept telling herself. In the break she’d gone and had a sharp little weep in the lavatory. But even after that she still kept filling up.
‘Edie, over ’ere!’ Her friend Ruby, picking out Edie’s coppery red hair among the crowd, waved a plump arm. ‘Get a move on!’ She’d already got her bag and cardi and was ready to go.
The two girls walked out through the gates and past the Bournville swimming baths as they did every day. It was a bright, sultry afternoon, the gardens full of flowers, though the scent of roses and lavender was never as noticeable to an outsider as the tantalizing smell of liquid chocolate which wafted from the works and along the streets. Edie and Ruby worked with the smell so constantly that they hardly noticed it any longer.
As soon as they were out through the gates Ruby pulled out her little mirror and squinted into it to coat her full lips in bright scarlet lipstick. Once satisfied with the effect, she looked round at Edie.
‘What’s up with you?’ Ruby nudged her. ‘Got a face on yer like a wet week in Bognor.’
‘Ouch – Rube!’ Edie felt small and quite dainty next to buxom Ruby. The other girls had nicknamed them ‘Ginger’ and ‘Cocoa’ when they first started at Cad-bury’s, and Edie’s freckly features and head of long auburn locks and Ruby’s full-moon face and thick brown hair had drawn close together at every opportunity, whispering and giggling. Five years later they hadn’t changed. Except, Edie thought dismally, now nothing was ever going to be the same.
‘Come on – you’re the one getting married on Sat’dy. You’re s’posed to be happy!’
happy!’ Edie wailed, at last bursting into tears. ‘I want to marry Jack and get away from home and Mom and everything – I can’t wait. Only I wish I didn’t have to give up my job. I don’t know how I’m going to stand it – no more swimming and the Art Club, and it’s been like family, being here, with you and all the others, and I’m going to miss you all so much . . .’
‘Oh Ede . . .’ Ruby put her arm round Edie’s shoulders and squeezed her tightly. ‘It ain’t going to be the same here at all without you—’
‘. . . and all afternoon I’ve been thinking – Oh Rube, I’m so worried Jack and me’ll end up like our mom and dad!’
Ruby’s face soured at the thought of Edie’s mom, Nellie Marshall, the vicious old witch!
‘Never, Edie – in a million years. Course you won’t!’ As encouragement she gave Edie another playful poke in the ribs. ‘You and Jack’ll get on all right. And I’ll be round to keep you up on the gossip. But I’m fed up with yer for going and finding a husband before me! You could’ve flippin’ waited!’
Edie ended up laughing through her tears. Ruby had always been able to cheer her up. They reached the corner of Kitty Road.
‘I’ve got to go into town for Mom,’ Ruby said. ‘’Er wants me to go down Jamaica Row – get a few bits of meat and that. We ain’t got nothing in for tea.’
Edie felt so sorry for Ruby these days. Until close on a year ago the Bonners’ house and Ruby’s family had been the happiest place Edie knew and she’d spent all the time she could round there. The Bonners had begun to make her believe that family life didn’t have to be the hard, bitter thing it had always been for her. But Ruby’s dad dying had changed everything. Ethel, who’d been a jolly, plump woman with peroxide hair, forever singing and laughing, was a sad, grieving widow now. She’d sunk into herself and didn’t seem to be able to snap out of it. She was finding it hard to cope with anything and Ruby, the oldest and the only girl, had had to take up the slack. Most Saturday nights now she was in town, late night shopping in the Bull Ring, the stalls lit up with flares as she sought out the last of the chickens and knock-down meat and fruit, the bags of broken biscuits. Poor Ruby was having to be the mom to her five brothers as well as the main wage-earner at the moment. Ruby always looked tired out these days. Mostly she made the best of it, but just occasionally she’d say, ‘I wish she’d be a proper mom to us again,’ in a way which wrung Edie’s heart.
‘I’ll walk yer to the bus stop,’ Edie said. ‘Shall I take your bag home, save you carrying it?’
Ruby handed it over. ‘Ta.’
As they waited to cross the Bristol Road she reached in her pocket and pulled out a couple of squashed-looking chocolates. Even after all this time at Cadbury’s she still couldn’t resist eating chocolate. Most people soon tired of it when surrounded by the smell and sight of it day after day.
Edie’s blue eyes narrowed with reproach. ‘You’ll get it in the neck you will, one day. No wonder you’ve got spots.’ She took one of the marzipan diamonds, knocked a few fluffy bits off from Ruby’s pocket and popped it in her mouth. Cadbury employees were allowed to eat chocolate so long as they remained within the factory, but taking it home was strictly forbidden.
Ruby gave a shrug which made her large bosom rise and fall. ‘Who’s going to know? They never notice.’
‘Oh, you’re awful,’ Edie said, chewing guiltily as they crossed the road.
The two of them stood side by side as a queue of people built up for the bus to town. Edie enjoyed the feel of the sun, bringing out the freckles on her bare forearms. She kept her cardigan on though, the sleeves pushed up to her elbows. It came as second nature, never uncovering her left arm above the elbow unless she had to. Arms folded, her right hand fingered the triangle of pale, scorched flesh which looked so ugly to her. Such a terrible accident, Nellie used to tell people. Edie’s so clumsy – walked straight into me when I was bringing the iron from the fire. Such a shame. That was her mom: Mrs Marshall, prim stalwart of the Band of Hope temperance society, never a pin out of place in her home, clothes starched and ironed into hard lines. That same correct, upright woman who’d come at her across the back room that day when she was seven years old. She was ironing on a blanket on the table, elbows sticking out, thin body taut with fury. Edie never understood what she’d done to provoke Nellie that day, except that she was late home from school, had stopped to play on the way home. A few minutes after she got home Nellie snatched up the iron from the fire, teeth bared, eyes burning with loathing.
‘That’ll teach yer!’ she spat at Edie as the iron hissed on her flesh. ‘Hurts, don’t it, see?’ No accident. And afterwards, missing school in a blur of pain and fever. Making excuses. The shame of it. She uncovered the arm only when she went swimming. Nothing was going to stop her doing that, especially not her mom.
She started to feel better. What did she have to cry about – she was getting married! Getting out of home at last! She and Jack loved each other, and love always won over, she told herself. Like in the pictures. For a moment she saw herself up there on the big screen in Jack’s arms, their lips moving closer and everything else fading except the two of them kissing, the violins playing louder and louder . . .